Our culture says "doubt means don't." But does it?
I just spoke to a client who needed some reassurance that she wasn’t making a mistake in marrying her loving, caring, passionate, open, honest partner with whom she shares core values and is aligned in terms of life goals. Given that list of qualities about her clearly healthy relationship, how could this be a mistake? It couldn’t, but in a culture that says “doubt means don’t”, any valid questioning and expression of healthy fears about making the biggest commitment of one’s life are immediately interpreted as signs of a mistake.
For the anxious mind, doubt is inevitable. For the mind that examines every decision under the highest resolution microscope possible, that asks important questions like, “How do I know that I love him? What is real love anyway? How do I know that we’re not going too end up like my parents or as part of the 50% divorce statistic?”, doubt is actually another word for fear. And since fear’s entire mission in life is to keep you protected from the possibility of getting hurt, it will naturally make a strong appearance as soon as the concept of marriage becomes a reality. That’s when fear – or doubt – shows up and tries to get you to run for the hills.
Should you listen? In the wise words of my client speaking about every area of her life (not just engagement anxiety), “If I listened to doubt, I would never get out of bed in the morning.” In other words, doubt is a normal part of the terrain of the anxious mind. When you learn to deal with anxiety effectively, you hear fear’s lines but you don’t heed its advice; it will always shoot its darts into your brain but you learn not to take the poison. So to buy into the cultural lie that “doubt means don’t”, whether you’re getting married or starting a new job, is like laying yourself prostrate at fear’s feet and saying, “You win. You rule my life.” And, as my client said, you would never get out bed. You live without risk in the safety of a carefully controlled box. You’re alive, but you’re not really living.
The problem arises when we equate doubt with instinct instead of with fear. If you’re walking in a forest and you have an instinct that a tiger is lurking around the next tree, listen to it! But in this case, instinct is more likely an acute awareness of the here-and-now environment: you’re hearing a far-off, unfamiliar sound, you’re seeing a slight movement in the leaves of the tree, you vaguely smell an unfamiliar smell. Being a highly sensitive person, your senses are more attuned to what’s happening around you than other people’s. But the main point is that you’re attuning to something dangerous that’s present right now. The modern-day anxious mind perseverates on “what if” thoughts, which are based in an imagined negative future and , thus, are unanswerable. My point is that you should listen to your fear/doubt if there’s something right in front of your that’s dangerous or scary – like a partner that has an addiction, abuse, trust, or control issue – but not if it’s hell-bent on convincing you that marrying a loving, caring man is a mistake.
It can be difficult to challenge a dominant message like “doubt means don’t”, especially when the stakes are so high and when many of our highly revered role-models espouse this belief. One of the most poignant moments of my second appearance on Oprah (1/28/03) was when she said, “What I have found is in many cases – and everyone has to judge this for themselves so when I say it it’s not a blanket statement, but this has been very helpful to me: Doubt means don’t.”
I gathered up my courage and then challenged her by saying, “I just want to say that doubt doesn’t always mean don’t. Most people, if they’re honest, will doubt at some point in their engagement because it’s such a big decision and people will almost always think, ‘Is there someone better out there?’ or “Am I sure I want to commit forever?’”
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This article was originally published at Conscious Transitions. Reprinted with permission from the author.